Russia under Vladimir Putin has been and will likely, for years to come, the biggest threat to the security of the transatlantic community.
Our community needs a longer-term strategy for relations with Russia without having any illusion that in the near future, Russia, under Putin’s rule, may become a peaceful and democratic state which abides by European norms. This must be a clear strategy differentiating exchanges on specific issues such as arms control, non-proliferation, deconfliction and counter-terrorism from high-level dialogue for dialogue’s sake with Putin’s Russia, which is pointless, possibly even harmful. Such a strategy for relations with Russia must, first and foremost, be geared towards what follows in a post-Putin Russia and the possibility that it could transform into a non-aggressive democratic country that follows European standards.
There is a good reason to believe that over time, perhaps over many years, Russia can become a fully normal European country. Such an evolution is the only way to guarantee peace and good relations between neighbours across the European continent.
These days, when we talk about Putin and Russia, the only positive message is that the Western community has started to gradually open its eyes. Following Putin’s nuclear threats; the use of the chemical weapon novichok in Britain; the chemical attacks in Syria authorised by Putin’s ally Bashar al-Assad; the Kremlin’s use of corruption, propaganda, direct or indirect support to local radical groups as a means of hybrid warfare; the recent mockery made of the so-called democratic elections in Russia itself; interference in elections in the West, the West has finally come to see what Lithuania observed well over a decade ago when considering Putin’s Russia.
Any efforts to return to business as normal with Putin’s regime would undercut the important, united, transatlantic effort to stand against Putin’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, his military efforts in Syria, his increasing human rights violations at home, his attacks on Russians living outside Russia, his interference in Western domestic politics and elections, and his refusal to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of his neighbours. Putin has done nothing to warrant a return to normal. Putin, in other words, remains a serious, if not existential, threat to the West. He shares none of our values and ever fewer interests with us.
If we can agree on the situation described above, then we need to complement our current deterrence of Putin’s Russia with a strategy that promotes a more European Russia after Putin.
US and European Union (EU) sanctions imposed in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine arguably helped keep Russian forces from encroaching further into the Ukrainian territory. But Russian proxies continue their military campaign in the Donbas region with overt support from Moscow; Putin also bears ultimate responsibility for the downing of flight MH17 and the murder of 298 passengers on board. Putin has the blood of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians on his hands after the 2015 intervention in a brutal fashion to prop up Assad and keep him in power. Furthermore, Ukrainian and American authorities have detected another major crippling computer virus that Russian hackers sought to plant into the global system.
Until now, the international community has unsuccessfully tried to work inside Russia with the Russian government, the opposition or other participants in the Russian political system to support their efforts to transform their own nation. Partnership for modernisation, various “reset” policies, support for the opposition and calls for democratic elections, efforts to maintain a dialogue in exchange for alleged common interests in Syria, North Korea or Iran – everything has been tested in relations with Russia, but none has led to Russia becoming more democratic or European. The position ‘let’s not provoke Russia’ has dominated the West for many years. A lenient approach to Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours, such as its invasion of Georgia in 2008, as well as its actions on the domestic scene, such as repressing the internal opposition in 2012, has only encouraged Putin’s regime to become more aggressive both internally and externally.
It is time for the West to develop a policy on Russia that is longer-term, pro-active and based on a clear and overarching concept. The West had a similar approach during the Cold War when it pursued a long-term strategy of containing Russia, originating with George Kennan’s Long Telegram, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. This strategy helped to create the EU and NATO, thereby resolving historic conflict between Germany and France.
However, the transatlantic community continues to struggle with the second tectonic conflict on the European continent, that involving Russia and the rest of Europe.
While the post-imperial, kleptocratic and aggressive Russia under Putin is the cause of this conflict, it is up to the West to propose a long-term strategy to resolve this conflict. This strategy must be of the same scale and systematic nature as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the containment strategy were. The problem of Russia has been and will continue to be as significant in the early 21st century as it was in the late 20th century. The changing nature of the problem requires new instruments to address it and revolves around the following five elements:
I. Identify Putin’s Russia as a strategic threat to, rather than a partner of, the European Union and NATO
The US Administration’s National Security Strategy, published in 2017, identified Russia (and China) as a major threat to US security. If Russia under Putin is considered to be a threat to the US, then it should be treated as an even bigger threat to the EU. However, the EU has not thus far identified Russia as a threat to its security in any of its official documents on foreign and security policy. Many EU institutions are treating Russia as a potential partner rather than a threat.
The EU and its partners should follow the US example and clearly identify Russia under Putin as a threat to the transatlantic security. NATO should do so as well.
The G7 leaders should also dismiss misguided suggestions to revive the G8 by bringing Putin’s Russia back into the fold. We should learn from history, instead of making the same mistakes. In this context, the Helsinki meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States raised serious concerns. This would be compounded if the US president were to host Putin in Washington or travel to Moscow for a summit. Such a move would open the floodgates in Europe to host Putin. This risks dividing and impeding the West from developing a genuine and effective European strategy on Russia. The starting point of any policy should be to recognize Putin’s regime as the threat that it is.
II. Strengthen NATO’s deterrence posture in the Baltic region and Western sanctions against Putin’s Russia
As long as Russia is ruled by Putin’s post-imperial and kleptocratic regime, its aggression has to be offset by continued Western sanctions against the regime and its supporters as well as by effective military deterrence measures. Putin’s regime may exist for a long time. Putin himself may seek to remain in power as long as possible. In his most recent, book The Road to Unfreedom, Professor Timothy Snyder provides a convincing analysis of and perspective on the fascist nature and structure of Putin’s regime. Such regimes do not end per se. Likewise, it is hardly expected that the successors of this type of a regime will be capable of breaking with their autocratic nature.
Western politicians should not fall into the trap of favouring a soft approach in dealing with Putin’s regime. The best way for dealing with the aggressive policies of the Kremlin is for the West to defend its interests in no uncertain terms. This entails a strong response from the West to hybrid threats posed by Putin’s Russia, as well as effective sanctions targeting the regime’s corrupt connections and financial resources.
With the possibility that Putin’s regime can become even more aggressive over the next decade, it cannot be ruled out that, in the long term, the Kremlin may be tempted to pursue military options in the Baltic region to test the will of NATO and, concurrently, the US to defend its allies.
We, therefore, must continue efforts to ensure that Putin’s aggressiveness is met with by a tough policy of deterrence:
• Sanctions against Russia for its invasion of and ongoing aggression against Ukraine must remain in place, and even ramped up, unless and until Russia withdraws all of its forces from the Ukrainian territory and respects the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (sanctions should also encompass the non-implementation of the Sarkozy peace plan in Georgia by Russia, including Moscow’s refusal to withdraw troops to pre-war lines and blocking international observers from entering the occupied territories);
• Sanctions on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses and large-scale corruption and money laundering – that is, the Magnitsky sanctions which Lithuania and other countries recently adopted and imposed – should remain in place until any form of justice and accountability is absent in Russia. Other Western democracies should adopt the Magnitsky-like sanctions and introduce restrictive measures against oligarchs who are closely connected to the Kremlin and their businesses;
• NATO and US capabilities should be further strengthened in all front-line states adjacent to Russia;
• Frontline states also need to maintain momentum in strengthening and modernising their military capabilities. All NATO countries should abide by their 2 % commitment as soon as possible.
III. Advance joint efforts to counter the Kremlin’s hybrid threats
The transatlantic community needs to ensure that the EU and NATO develop new defence capabilities and implement new actions for strengthening self-defence in order to counter not only traditional military threats, but also hybrid threats posed by Russia.
• We must spare no effort to make the EU and NATO build and strengthen joint anti-hybrid defence capabilities in order to help nation states defend themselves against a wide range of the Kremlin’s hybrid threats, including cyber and propaganda attacks; the spread of disinformation; the injection of the Kremlin’s dirty offshore money into our political systems; and influence through national businesses with major economic interests in Russia. Lithuania’s experience shows that any Western country on its own may find it difficult to deal with such threats. Therefore, a high premium should be placed on the development of NATO’s joint anti-hybrid capabilities by utilising existing intelligence capabilities especially those of the US and the UK as well as their institutional capacity to detect offshore money and attempts to inject it into national political systems.
• We encourage Western states to join forces to prevent the Kremlin from abusing freedom of speech and freedom of information in order to spread disinformation, fake news, and propaganda. Propaganda instruments, such as RT and Sputnik, cannot be considered as true media, and they should be countered by disclosing their control by political and intelligence authorities, their methods of operation and their financing channels, and by vigorously disproving their malicious content.
• We urge the EU and NATO to take joint actions to prevent the investment of offshore money owned by the Kremlin or by Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin in Western economies and political systems. This requires new EU-wide transparency and anti-corruption standards and effective common instruments for the implementation of the former, as shown in a recent study conducted by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
• The West, in particular the EU, should have a clear strategy for reducing its dependence on Russian energy resources. As long as Russia poses a threat to European security, increasing the EU’s dependence on Russian energy resources means an increasing the threat to European security.
IV. Support longer-term efforts to help Russians transform their nation into a fully normal European state (after Putin)
A longer-term Western strategy towards Russia would not help the transatlantic community defend itself against Putin’s aggressiveness, but would prepare the West for the day when Russia after Putin develops into a fully normal European country. Such a perspective on Russia is conceivable only after its government abandons its penchant for aggression and human rights abuses. While the future of Russia is for Russians to determine, the West can help in that.
One should not underestimate the impact of Russia having successful, democratic, market-oriented neighbours along its borders. If they can succeed, then Russia can too. Thus, we encourage the investment of Western political and financial resources into a ‘success belt’ along Russia’s borders, starting with support for the economic success of and European perspective for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The Lithuanian initiative, which started as the 2017 Marshall Plan for Ukraine and has now transformed into the European Commission initiative of Reform Contract for Investment for Ukraine, is intended to pursue this strategy. Ukraine’s success is needed not only for preventing the return of imperial Russia to Ukrainian land, but also for a successful European Ukraine to share its success story with ordinary Russian citizens. Ukraine’s success the Western opportunity which poses the greatest challenge to the Kremlin’s regime and is feared most by Putin. Putin’s strategic goal in Ukraine is to prevent the development of a successful state that becomes integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community. Therefore, the West should do its utmost to thwart Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine. Ukraine’s success is what the West can help make happen, and it is currently the most effective instrument for the West to help Russia transition into a European-style country. Therefore, the Marshall Plan for Ukraine is the most important Western geopolitical instrument that the West should put into effect with its full political and financial weight. By helping Ukraine succeed, the West can ultimately deal with Russia’s place in Europe, the last tectonic challenge in continental Europe. Within five to ten years, when the Western Balkans become EU members, the prospect of EU membership for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will have to become a geopolitical instrument to help achieve the same effect.
The West should outline its potential relations with a post-imperial and non-aggressive Russia, including possible models of integration of a fully European Russia into Western structures, as proposed by Andreas Umland. This approach could entail visa-free travel, a customs union, and a comprehensive trade and association agreement with the EU. Communicating our commitment to these measures today would help ordinary Russians and Russian elite unconnected with Putin’s kleptocratic regime understand what they are losing because of the aggressive behaviour of the regime and what they would win with a more European Russia (after Putin) in the long term.
Finally, the transatlantic community should support those Russian voices seeking a better future for their country. This can be done through providing a safe haven for those who face serious danger were they to remain in Russia for the present time; providing objective news and information through radio, the internet and social media so that Russians can have an alternative to Kremlin-controlled propaganda; cleaning up corruption in our own countries from which the Kremlin and its oligarchic friends benefit; and imposing sanctions on Russian officials and others in Putin’s orbit who engage in massive corruption and gross human rights abuses, peddle Kremlin’s propaganda, and foment Kremlin’s aggression against Russia’s neighbours.
V. Preserve and Strengthen transatlantic unity
We believe that Atlanticism and Europeanism go hand in hand.
Our goal should be to preserve and strengthen the conditions that allow for collective action within transatlantic structures. NATO is the most important of these institutions. For us, Europeanism and Atlanticism are two sides of the same coin. If we do not want to descend into competing Eurosceptic nationalisms that are likely to empower Russia, we need to consider this old insight anew.
We must make every effort to prevent the divide between the US and the EU growing. The continuing leadership of the US is of particular importance in ensuring the security of the European continent. Meanwhile, the Europeans, as NATO partners, must, in good faith, fulfil their commitment to spend 2 % of their GDP on defence.
On the other hand, it is no less important for the EU to continue its integration, increase its strength, develop its capacity to react more effectively, and play an important and responsible role in ensuring the security of the European continent. For that reason, the EU needs a strong partnership with the US, as well as the contribution of all EU Member States to common defence and border security. Similarly, the EU needs an efficient common energy strategy for reducing the dependence of its Member States on supplies from the countries posing a geopolitical threat to the EU. The EU must also frame an effective neighbourhood and enlargement policy geared, in particular, towards the Eastern neighbours, as this is the only way to progressively expand the area of stability, democracy and peace in the European continent. This Eastern neighbourhood policy necessitates immediate instruments, like the post-war Marshall Plan, for promoting economic development and reforms. This should be a common concern for both the EU and the G7. In the future, such a policy should transform into a plan for the EU’s enlargement to the Eastern neighbourhood.
To conclude, instead of taking part in the folly of dialogue with the current Kremlin and falling victim to the Kremlin’s agenda, we should reinvigorate enlargement of the EU and NATO towards the East after ten years of granting Putin a de facto veto over such enlargement. At the same time, we cannot give up on Russia. In fact, we should hold out the prospect, and try to support it where possible, so that Russia after Putin could become a normal European country one day. In the meantime, we cannot risk losing countries and populations to Putin’s sphere of influence. We must initiate proactive policies in Europe’s East together with a core group of the most important European capitals. It’s always better to have a seat at the table than to be on the menu.
Russia is the key factor that divides our transatlantic unity. This document intends to initiate the discussion within the transatlantic community on its long-term Russia policy.
Valdas Adamkus, Former President of Lithuania
Anna Fotyga, Chair of Subcommittee on Security and Defence, European Parliament, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Poland
Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman of Open Russia
David Kramer, Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Andrius Kubilius, Former Prime Minister of Lithuania, Deputy Chair of European Committee
Žygimantas Pavilionis, Chairman of Transatlantic and Democracy Subcommittee, Former Lithuanian Ambassador in the US and Mexico
Tengiz Pkhaladze, Advisor to the President of Georgia – Foreign Relations Secretary
Sir Malcolm Rifkind KCMG QC, Former Foreign and Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom
Damon Wilson, Vice President of The Atlantic Council
Viktor Yushchenko, Former President of Ukraine
Michael Žantovský, Director of Vaclav Havel Library in Prague
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